It has been almost a year since I have been writing this blog. Most of the posts have been stand-alone snippets of my thinking, clustered into various categories. On the occasion of this anniversary, I will run a series of posts that summarize my entire philosophical journey, so that if read in sequence, all elements of my thinking can be understood as a whole.
It happened in the tiny infirmary of the World Trade Center construction site in 1971.
Having dropped out of training to be a surgeon, I was in the process of deciding what to do with my life. I had invested four years in medical school, two more years as a surgical intern and resident, and could not conceive of leaving medicine entirely. But which branch? I left surgery because I felt a part of me would die if I pursued it. In my spare time at the infirmary of the World Trade Center construction site, I began reading philosophy, which I had loved in college. I stumbled onto the writings of Carl Jung and came to the realization that he was earning a living as a doctor while pursuing philosophy. That was it! I was going to be the best psychiatrist I could possibly be, but my secret mission was to be an adventurer, exploring the vast wilderness of human nature.
After a three year psychiatric residency, in which I became heavily involved in Freudian theory, my first philosophical project was to examine the roots of evil in a maximum security prison. Several weeks after I had joined the staff, I found myself walking down a cell block heavy with the scent of stale sweat and urine. Wearing a coat and necktie, I passed by the silent hard stares from a row of a dozen convicts. There was always the possibility that a cup of urine or feces would be flung out through the bars. Finally I arrived at the cell of the prospective interviewee. On this particular occasion, a hulking individual—let’s call him Joe Smith—was sleeping on his bunk. After my repeatedly trying to arouse him by name, Joe opened his eyes and simply looked at me from his bed. I told him in a flat, matter-of-fact tone that I was fulfilling a legal obligation to offer him a psychiatric examination. After several minutes of staring at me, he began to stir. With deliberate and excruciating slowness he stood up, grasped the bars, and glared at me with intimidating contempt. Struggling to maintain eye contact, I said, “I take that as a no.” He had no intention of dignifying my visit with a response of any kind.
While walking back down that gauntlet, someone spoke to me: “Dr. Wylie, come here. I want to tell you something.” It was a man with a mass of self-inflicted scars whom I had engaged in the infirmary some weeks earlier. I stepped over to his cell and reflexively tilted my head to listen to what he had to tell me. Suddenly, I felt a blow to my face. Had he struck me? We locked eyes. His expression, which was to haunt me for the better part of two years, was viciously contorted. He hit me again—nothing serious, I thought, and walked away. Something had changed. Weirdly, I suddenly felt in control of that corridor, giving hard stares right back as I walked on back. I opened the great door at the end of the hall, noting a sensation of increasing warmth. I looked down: the entire front of my suit was soaked in blood.
For the two years following this incident, I suffered post-traumatic stress disorder while continuing to work at the prison. I began to feel as if was catching a glimpse of our evolutionary past and immersing myself in the writings of Charles Darwin became a refuge. Late one night, I carefully placed a small piece of paper with the following quotation into my wallet where it remains to this day.
In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.
—Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (1859)
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